Sam Harris Isn’t as Smart as I Thought

Sam Harris

Sam Harris “Debates” Ezra Klein

Sam Harris and Ezra Klein had a debate with each other for over two hours about… To be honest, I don’t know what it was about. It was supposed to be about the connection between intelligence and race. It was also supposed to be about Harris’ new BFF Charles Murray and how badly he is treated.

Let me get the elephant in the room out of the way right now: poor Charles Murray. It’s certainly true that Murray gets attacked a lot. But it really has little to do with The Bell Curve where he argued that blacks are dumber than whites, that there is nothing we can do about it, so we should just get rid of affirmative action and all those programs that try to make the nation more economically fair.

The Bell Curve was co-authored by Richard Herrnstein. He was the scientist and I believe that he was responsible for all the science in the book. He also died of lung cancer the year the book came out. So it was really Murray’s book. And like all Murray’s book, it was political. All of his books push a radical libertarian ideology. He is in favor of the universal basic income (UBI), but only because he’s a pragmatist. Like many libertarians, he’s for the UBI as a way of getting rid of all other social programs and has even said that the UBI would allow the nation to spend 10 percent less on helping the poor.

Sam Harris: Repetition Machine

What was most interesting in the debate was that Sam Harris would make a comment like, “All these people don’t want to deal with race and IQ because it makes them uncomfortable.” Ezra Klein would respond insightfully. And then Sam Harris would just repeat what he had already said in different words.

I’ve had debates with people like this. They don’t really understand the subject they are talking about at a deep level. What they think is really just emotional. So they think that if they just repeat what they believe enough, others will agree. Because they don’t actually have a rational argument. They just believe. This is hilarious coming from New Atheist Sam Harris.

The Sam Harris Cult

Of course Sam Harris leads a kind of cult. There are many young men (Yes: men!) who hang on his every word and fight with anyone who disagrees with him. So as soon as the podcast was out, I saw reddit and blog posts with titles like, “Sam Harris Destroys Ezra Klein.” Ah, no.

In fact, I had a reasonably favorable opinion of Harris before this debate. Now I think he’s kind of a dullard who within 5 years will be a conservative and frequent guest on Fox News. And it won’t matter to his cult members, most of whom now believe themselves to be liberal.

John von Neumann

I was very tickled by something that Sam Harris said about the great mathematician (among other things) John von Neumann:

I mean, for instance, I would bet my life that my IQ is lower than John von Neumann’s was. The chances of that being true are 100 percent. Of course this is mere speculation, but this is speculation that you could bet the fate of the world on. Despite what Turkheimer says in his article, in his tweets, you can make very high probability speculations. Do you think I’m inferior to John von Neumann? Do you think I think I’m inferior to John von Neumann?

The Inferiority Argument: von Neumann Edition

What he’s getting at is that just because he thinks blacks are stupid doesn’t mean he thinks they are inferior. There are many problems with this. I figure that Harris’ IQ is something like mine: in the low genius area. And that means that even though he knows he’s no von Neumann, he’s smart. He’s a guy who people look up to. He has many fans. He’s rich. Any book he wants to write will be published.

Now compare this with a black man who is also a genius. But he’s looked down on in society. If he ever got in trouble with the law, he’d probably be lucky to have a job as a janitor. He wouldn’t get all the social perks of a white man of his intelligence.

And that’s true of black people at every intelligence level. As Ezra Klein noted, black families with $100,000 incomes live, on average, in neighborhoods where the median income in $30,000. Sam Harris ignores the question.

Charles Murray Isn’t a Scientist

Harris wants to make it all about science. But it’s not about science for Murray. But it makes Harris feel good to pretend that Murray is in the business of science. Because if he is, it means that Sam Harris lives in a meritocracy. And it means that he deserves the excellent life that he has.

Of course, Sam Harris doesn’t believe in free will (I agree with him). He got lucky! But given that luck, he deserves his wonderful life.

And for the record, I do think Sam Harris is inferior to John von Neumann. Von Neumann made the world a better place and Sam Harris is making it a worse place.

By the way, Harris used that example many times in the debate. Ezra Klein ignored it because it’s stupid.

Sam Harris Doesn’t Like Neanderthals

Ezra KleinAnother of Sam Harris’ repeated examples had to do with Neanderthals. He noted that Europeans had Neanderthal genes but that Africans did not. His point was that had it been the other way around, everyone would have freaked out. This is very strange. First, Africans do have Neanderthal genes — just less than Europeans. Second, where did he get his education abut Neanderthals? The Flintstones? Neanderthals had a larger brain to body ratio than humans, indicating that they might have been smarter. What they didn’t have were well developed parts of the brain used for communication.

Now it’s true that Neanderthals as a going concern went extinct. But humans went one person from going extinct. We are all the descendants of a single woman. As I recall, the total world populations of humans got down to less than one thousand. So the fact that humans are alive today and Neanderthal are not is a simple matter of luck.

King of the Subgeniuses

I can see why all these relatively bright but not terribly bright guys love Sam Harris. First, he’s a lot smarter than they are and so can convince them with plausible but facile arguments. Plus, he feeds their prejudices in a way that allows them to think that they aren’t prejudiced — just “rational” and “scientific.”

There is no point in listening to Sam Harris. His debate with Ezra Klein showed that he has nothing to add to the public debate. He’s actually starkly closed minded. I can see why Noam Chomsky didn’t want to debate him. Chomsky would have had to stop Harris after every sentence to correct him.

If you are a Sam Harris fan, I beg you: read some real intellectuals. Harris is a pretender.

15 replies on “Sam Harris Isn’t as Smart as I Thought”

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Someone wants to have some traffic to this blog.

  2. marvin greenspank says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with this.

    I was a listener of Harris for about a year and really appreciated most of the conversations he’s had. He was in, in my head at least, an excellent conversationist. I know Ezra Klein’s work to a much lesser extent.

    When this fiasco began I would argue my “biases” were in favor of Harris (as much as I’d like to claim I don’t have any), but that changed quickly reading the email exchange. I went back to the Chomsky email exchange after. What a disaster. What a fucking disaster.

    I’ve read all related materials to this, and tuned into the debate. I firmly stand in Klein’s camp due to the number of legitimate things Klein brought up that were never addressed. It bothers me that there’s not a better way to have these conversations. The utmost extreme is watching Kellyanne Conway. I’m quickly losing hope in civil debate, truth and the likes.

    • Frank Moraes says:

      Yeah, I used to really like Harris. I’m still very fond of his pamphlet on free will. But I really don’t understand why there are so many public “intellectuals” who insist upon spending most of their time talking and writing about the things they know the least about. Obviously Harris has a problem with Islam. The normal thing for an intellectual to do would be to become an expert on it. But as far as I can tell, Harris knows no more about Islam than he did 15 years ago. It’s still just knowing a quote here and a quote there. He knows none of the history. And it’s a shame, because he is a good conversationalist. He has a lot to offer. But he spends far too much time talking about the one thing that he is more irrational (racist) and uneducated about.

  3. James Fillmore says:

    Re-read that Harris/Chomsky thing. I’m surprised you would put Harris in the same category as yourself. Morally, I don’t know (perhaps you eat babies, it’s somewhat possible, with some yummy sauce) — but intellectually, that’s not even a consideration.

    Harris is reasonably skilled at composing sentences/paragraphs. This is a learned talent, and pretty much anybody can do it, just as anybody can learn how to braise a roast. People who go to the fanciest schools have an easier time learning it. It’s no indication of a functioning moral mind.

    What one puts into the sentences & paragraphs is a different matter. And Harris puts close to nothing in his. I didn’t like latter-day Hitchens on many fronts, but there was more in his anti-God book than Harris could muster up in a lifetime.

    If the New Atheist community continues to hang their hat on philosophical lightweights like Harris, they’re doomed to failure, and good riddance. That ilk always had a strong glibertarian stench to it.

    • Frank Moraes says:

      All I mean is that if Harris were educated in differential equations, he would be about as good as I am. I think I’m far more nuanced in my thinking, but that’s a different thing. I do think Harris is a pretty smart guy. But he clearly has issues. One of them, I think, is intellectual insecurity. There are lots of people who put me to shame. But I’m perfectly comfortable with my intellectual skills. I always get the impression that Harris is afraid people will think he’s stupid. And the more he does that, the more people do.

      • James Fillmore says:

        @Frank — I think we approach Mr. Harris from different viewpoints. Yours, it seems to me, is that of a scientist who taught himself how to write. As such, Harris appears competent to you. I’m a talentless loser who taught himself how to write. As such, I can smell Harris’s shtick from a mile off. It’s what a twerp does when they get caught lying on a resume; you double down. I’ve been guilty of this so many times, I’ve lost count. I know a hack when I read one, because I’m one myself — and Harris is a fraud.

        Oh, well, at least I’ve never advocated nuclear war. Which Harris has absolutely done. At one point, the New Atheist thing was so popular, you could put any batshit crazy idea into a book and sell copies of you were famous enough.

        • Frank Moraes says:

          I really wish you wouldn’t put yourself down like that. It’s not true and you should know that.

          I’m not sure you’re right because I’ve noticed Harris’ shtick — especially his constant refrain of, “You don’t understand me; you’re taking me out of context.” Even if that’s true, he gives aid and comfort to bigots. I bet at least 95% of his followers hated Muslims before they found Harris. And Harris is great for them because he makes their hatred sound reasonable.

          Also, if you get off the subject of Muslims and religion in general, he’s not bad. I did like his boooklet Free Will.

          • James Fillmore says:

            @Frank: “Also, if you get off the subject of Muslims and religion in general, he’s not bad. I did like his boooklet Free Will.”

            Yeah, I can see that. I enjoyed some of Dawkins’s books about evolutionary biology before I knew he was a New Atheist hero.

            It gets hard for me to tolerate this stuff. As a fan of good art, I should separate the work from the person. Yet it’s difficult. Always has been, always will be, with people who create anything. In their time and place, however, I feel it’s reasonable to be critical of their public actions. Some people pimped for war on Iraq and gave it a pseudo-justification via explaining how much they loathed religion. Some people did not.

            The first Harris book I read was “End Of Faith,” and it’s such hot garbage I wanted to toss it out the car window. But the people who gave it to me were driving, and interested in the personal aspect of wrestling with faith. (Harris isn’t; he Knows Better Than Those Dolts.) So I haven’t been much motivated to look up his other writing since. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn some of it is good.

            I wasn’t putting down myself as a writer; I know I’ve done some decent work, and I’m proud of it. Yet I’ve occasionally half-assed stuff to meet a deadline. “End Of Faith” probably wasn’t written on a deadline — it’s possibly a very personal testament — but it’s half-assed. I know lazy work when I see it.

            And the notion of how that junkburger represents Harris at his most impassioned tells you a lot about the guy. Or as much as we need to know about whether Harris has anything of vague use to say vis-a-vis our time. How the future will regard his sentence-composition skills, I haven’t the foggiest.

      • Jurgan says:

        “All I mean is that if Harris were educated in differential equations, he would be about as good as I am.”

        This sounds like the fallacy that intelligence is an in-born quality, and not something that can be trained (which is at the core of the racist bullshit in The Bell Curve). As a math teacher, I spend a lot of time trying to convince my students that your statement is true of almost anyone. Unless you have a severe neurological impairment, you can learn math. So, to me, the statement that “with training in math, you can be good in math” is practically a tautology.

        • Frank Moraes says:

          I’ve tried to respond to this in detail, but I’m flailing. What I think I’m saying is that had Harris gone to college with me, he would have done as well. And that is largely because of the intellectual environment that we grew up in from day one. Obviously, differential equation solving is not intelligence (indeed, it’s really more intuition; it isn’t like algebra where there are rules; with dif eqns it is more like you see it or you don’t; there are some rules and general guidelines; but once I was in grad school, those didn’t help me at all). But I know you’ve read me for a long time and I would assume you would know if you gave me young children to teach, they would all grow up to love and be good at math. I don’t think that’s about rules or teaching. I think it is because the children would learn my enthusiasm.

  4. Jurgan says:

    “What was most interesting in the debate was that Sam Harris would make a comment like, “All these people don’t want to deal with race and IQ because it makes them uncomfortable.” Ezra Klein would respond insightfully. And then Sam Harris would just repeat what he had already said in different words.”

    Ah, yes, that reminds me of this video, where the alt-right troll with the absurd moniker of “Baked Alaska” tried to show up intelligence expert Malcolm Nance. Malcolm gave a long, detailed explanation as to why the phrase “white pride” has negative connotations and terrorist connections that “black pride” does not, and all Baked would do in response is keep shouting “you’re a hypocrite! Everyone should be proud of their race!”

    • Frank Moraes says:

      Yeah, I watched the whole thing when I saw it was Nance. But it was annoying. There’s another aspect of this. In America, being white is to have no race. If a white man rapes and tortures a woman to death, it’s an evil man. But if a black man does the same thing, there is this unspoken (in polite society) that this was done by an evil black man. So to say you are proud to be black is to push back against that racism. When a white man says he is proud to be white, he’s pushing back against the equality of the races.

      But if I were Nance, I would not allow that conversation to be put on video, and I would leave the conversation after about a minute in any case. Did you read what the poster said of the video? Basically: Baked Alaska was just a poor white guy (with every advantage in the world) who was wasn’t allowed to be proud of his race while Nance (who’s actually done something with his life — something the poster scoffs at) is a hypocrite. Nance is saying it isn’t racist to say he’s proud to be black because of people like Baked Alaska — and millions more who think the same thing but know better than to say it. And 20,000 white supremacists get to watch it and feel superior and oppressed.

  5. Lorenzo Jones says:

    *descendants of a single woman. Decedent means something very different.

    • Frank Moraes says:

      Thanks! As everyone around here should know, nothing is copy edited — except occasionally by readers.

  6. Jay McCollough (Mack) says:

    I have a couple issues with one part of this article, mostly because it relates to my own scholarship. Firstly, Neanderthals did not exhibit a larger degree of encephalization than anatomically modern humans (AMH). I hear this a lot from laymen, and as misconceptions go I much prefer it to the caveman-with-club myth. In any case, Neanderthals did have a larger mean cranial capacity than AMH, but they also had significantly more body mass. Their degree of encephalization (brain-to-body ratio) was essentially the same as our species’.

    Neanderthals were remarkably similar to AMH; so much so that they were able to produce fertile offspring. In biology, a species is defined as any group of organisms that can mate in the wild and produce reproductively viable progeny. By that definition, Neanderthals belonged to the same species as AMH. Indeed, there are a considerable number of paleoanthropologists who subscribe to this view, referring to our respective clades as subspecies (i.e. Homo sapiens sapiens and Homo sapiens neanderthalensis).

    The second issue I take is the claim that Neanderthals had less developed communication centers in the brain. That idea comes from twentieth century efforts to explain their extinction. At that time, there wasn’t enough data to say otherwise, but recent genetic research, archaeological evidence, and osteological analyses demonstrate that their brain organization wasn’t markedly different from ours. In fact, some of the parts of the brain responsible for linguistic capabilities (e.g. the Wernicke’s area and the Broca’s area) were comparable in terms of size. And perhaps most importantly, they had the identical FOXP2 allele that humans do, which is a gene necessary for language.

    Furthermore, I find it difficult to believe that humans would’ve mated enough with them to leave a genetic imprint if there weren’t sufficient cognitive similarities. There are those who take issue with this supposition, pointing out that pregnancies don’t necessarily require sexual consent. Nevertheless, we are talking about foraging populations, who by and large existed in very egalitarian sociopolitical units, and in comparison to agricultural or industrial societies, were quite peaceful. I’m not saying that there wasn’t conflict, but early humans did not experience the degree of violence that emerged with complex societies.

    Ethnographic research provides important insights; for one, there are many foraging (hunter-gatherer) cultures that, before contact with Westerners, had no concept of rape–they didn’t even have words for it. It was simply inconceivable to them. Rape, after all, is about power, and in foraging groups with egalitarian sociopolitical structures, coercive power over other group members is not something that people can really achieve, or even seek out. Things like reciprocity and community integration are extremely important mores, which not only structures intragroup cultural practices, but also intergroup relations. It does not benefit hunter-gatherers to fight with one another, and there are complex social structures that prevent it. Remember, early foraging populations in Pleistocene Europe would’ve only numbered about 30 individuals; not enough to maintain reproductive viability. This necessitates good relationships with your neighbors. I see this in my own area of study (North American prehistory). Once again, I must reiterate that I’m not denying that conflict and war occurred. It was just rare and not to the same degree as we are accustomed to. It is a very Western thing to focus on aggression when studying other cultures, and there are numerous examples of misinterpretations in early anthropological studies because of such biases. Keep in mind that even scientists who pretend to be objective are influenced by their situated perspectives. The questions you ask shape your research.

    I apologize for the tangent, but my point here is that Neanderthals and humans likely had relatively peaceful interactions. My own hypothesis is that mating between Neanderthals and AMH occurred for economic reasons. Another very modern and mostly Western concept is marriage for love. Throughout the majority of history, marriage occurred to benefit the group, increase status, and/or create economic opportunities. As AMH entered Ice Age Europe, they found themselves in a region with very low population density. Neanderthals would’ve provided a good source of reproductive potential. This, and given the archaeological evidence of symbolic behavior, suggests to me that Neanderthals had a very human-like linguistic repertoire.

    I think a big part of superiority/inferiority explanations for Neanderthal extinction comes from humanity’s need to feel special. Why did Neanderthals go extinct while humans survived? Because we’re unique! We’ere intelligent! We’re superior! We had language and culture and art! Well, Neanderthals had both of those things too, not to mention a very sophisticated stone tool industry. Moreover, in a way they didn’t go extinct because their genes live on in people of European descent (and in Asians and SOME Africans, although to a much lesser extent).

    Finally, the third problem with this article are the statements about Mitochondrial Eve. It is a common misconception that we were one person away from extinction. This is not true. There were plenty of other women alive at the time of Mitochondrial Eve, she was just the lucky one whose genes ended up in all of us. Any number of circumstances could’ve contributed to this, but remember that Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is only inherited from mothers. That being the case, many of Eve’s contemporaries might not have had daughters who survived to pass on their own genes. Whatever the case, Evolution requires that we share a common ancestor; it doesn’t necessarily mean that common ancestor was the last or the first of a species.

    Another minor correction: the bottleneck you referred to was about 70,000 years ago and the best estimates place the human population at 15,000-30,000. Keep in mind, however, that estimating population at such deep time depths is notoriously difficult. It’s hard enough to estimate the population of North America at the time of European contact and that was only a few hundred years ago (not to mention all the genetic, historical, and archaeological evidence to help refine those calculations). Additionally, this bottleneck did NOT coincide with Mitochondrial Eve’s existence. Although it is difficult to pin down a date for when she lived (the margins of error are large), it is most commonly reported as being about 200,000 BP.

    Anyway, I apologize this ran so long. I was on roll! :) If you read this far you have my thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *